Sport: Dr. J Is Flying Away

Savoring and being savored: a victory tour

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On the playground, where the move counts as much as the basket, "winners' out" is the rule. Score the hoop, keep the ball. Win the game, maintain the court. Hold out until dark if you can, or at least until twilight.

Julius ("Dr. J") Erving, the most watchable basketball player of the past 16 years, has begun to say goodbye to cities: Portland, Seattle, Oakland, Phoenix. At final stops along the Philadelphia 76ers' way, home teams have been introducing their own players first in order to build a crescendo for Dr. J, the National Basketball Association star who plays for everyone.

"Each arena holds its own memories," says Erving, who was not thinking of wine or golf clubs when he announced on opening day that this will be his final season. Dr. J's best going-away present has been the sight of the Phoenix fans bedecked in surgical caps and masks for his last house call. "I'm savoring a lot of old moves and a lot of old players," he says, "because they should be savored. These buildings house so many ghosts."

With a quarter of the season gone, the revamped Sixers are neck and neck with the Boston Celtics, as usual. Since Center Moses Malone transferred to Washington, bulky Forward Charles Barkley has become the dominant figure. After Maurice Cheeks, a whirlwind guard, Erving, at 36, continues to perform probably the third most important role, shifting almost exclusively to the backcourt. By his standards, Dr. J's game has become subtle and subdued. "Man makes plans," he says. "God laughs." But he can still play.

A scout for Indiana, Dave Twardzik, notes the new economy of Erving's moves, and smiles. Before Twardzik was a starting guard for an N.B.A. champion in Portland, he was a substitute for the Virginia Squires of the old American Basketball Association, headlined in the early '70s by an Afro-puffed University of Massachusetts underclassman from Roosevelt, N.Y. "I only played 20 minutes a game, and I didn't mind," Twardzik says, "because I could sit and enjoy Doc. I remember thinking 'They're paying me to watch this guy play.' On the bench, we'd elbow each other and whisper, 'Did you see that? God, did you see that?' " Gravity never had any pull with Dr. J.

Partly because the 76ers are new, but mostly because the finish is near, Erving feels like a Squire again. "The ending has the same innocence attached to it that the beginning did," he says with some surprise. "I feel light and free. The way I played basketball was never about bringing attention to myself, but it was always about proving myself. I'm not forgetting the job at | hand, but, honestly, I feel relieved." At just 6 ft. 6 in. he has been the MVP of two leagues, scoring nearly 30,000 points along the way.

His pedigree was said to be by Elgin Baylor out of Connie Hawkins, and Erving is considered the inspiration for Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan. "But aren't comparisons always unfair?" he says. "I've borrowed from every player I've ever seen, from the little guard with the two-hand set shot to the big center with the slam dunk to the forward defending the passing lanes like a free safety. What separates a player, if anything does, is just the few things he adds that are his own."

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